Hanging out with the Layene in Dakar
By Mcmel Starafrica
Camberene is a village next to Parcelles Assainies on the northern coast of Dakar, right by the sea. It is completely autonomous and you cannot drink alcohol, smoke or dance or play the drums there apart from zikr (religious chant). The Layene people reside in Camberene and they are a Muslim brotherhood. The head of their branch is a Khalifa by the name of Seydina Issa Rohoulahi. The Layene consider him to be the reincarnation of Jesus, Issa being the Senegalese translation of the name Jesus. There, in Camberene is a huge concrete mausoleum that houses the body of the deceased Issa. I wandered up the coast one Sunday morning to Camberene to find out all about the Layene people and when I arrived I met the wonderful Pathe Mbengue and his son Libass. The first thing Pathe did was to introduce his young eight-year-old son to me. He was very proud of him and he was very proud of the meaning of his son’s name which he told me means: to pardon, the one who pardons.
Pathe and I got talking like old friends as people passed us he greeted them saying Laye y Laye and he taught me to do the same “’we are Layene people here and that is how we greet each other: Laye y Laye’ followed by ‘Asalaam Aleikoum’”. Pathe is an engineer and a teacher, and I could see he was a very good teacher. Immediately he was helping me with my Wolof pronunciation – especially the vowels that I was having trouble with. He invited over for ndekki (breakfast) at his house, and we walked up a narrow sandy street away from the beach to his compound which wasn’t far. I was enjoying greeting people as we went and Pathe was good to keep encouraging me. Once inside I met Pathe’s extended family. He lives with his brother and his brother’s family, across the courtyard live two of his other brother’s and their families. We stepped into Pathe’s grand lounge with beautiful red and gold furniture, in pride of place on opposite walls hung two pictures of Pathe’s mother and father. ‘I respect them very much’ he said. ‘My mother paid all my utility bills and my father too always helped me and I wouldn’t be here without them.’ There’s a big glass and wooden cabinet in the corner of the room and hung on the glass window is a picture of all the Issa Seydina and of all the khalifas that have followed him. Pathe talks me through them all and then tells me a bit about Camberene. ‘You know, next year will be the 100th year of the village of Camberene in 2014: there will be huge festivities, you have to come back then’ he said. Pathe was really emphatic and excited. Camberene didn’t seem that old to me, Pathe went on to explain ‘before 1914, we had the ‘peste’ (the plague) he tells me. The village used to be situated further inland but because of the plague the whole village had to be moved’.
I was intrigued about Seydina Issa. The Layene people do celebrate Christmas on the 25th December not the 24th December. I wondered about the fact that Jesus is the great figure for Christian people and yet also for the Layene people who are Muslim, but ‘Gno Farr’ as they say in Senegal: we are together, we are one. That is something that I have always loved and appreciated about the people of Senegal, there is no segregation and no distinction, everybody lives and celebrates together which is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? I can’t think of many other places where people actively take part in each other’s religious celebrations. After breakfast, Pathe and I went to the mosque with lots of other children in tow. The narrow sand streets were filled with activity, laughter and kids playing. The mosque was shut so I took a few photos and we went on our way to the mausoleum where Seydina Issa was entombed. The mausoleum is on the beach and is completely surrounded by a sand pitch which is considered holy ground, so we took off our sandals to approach the mausoleum. In a tent on the beach next to the immense concrete building sat the mausoleum guardian who was making attaya (tea). Pathe explained who I was and that I wanted to enter the mausoleum. I wasn’t allowed. I already had my head covered and was wearing my taille baisse and ser, so I was a bit surprised. The guardian explained ‘next time, wear a long boubou’ he said. He wanted me to cover my arms entirely and have a long veil. I noticed too that all the Layene people approaching the mausoleum were dressed in white. I thought it was only for the big celebrations that they wore white but apparently it’s what is always done.
After my excellent tour I got a call and was supposed to be going on into the city to meet other friends so Pathe and the kids in tow walked me back along the Corniche beach. He was so good with the children, especially his tiny daughter who he’d been carrying in his arms and singing to. I have to admit I’d love to have spent the day with Pathe, his family and the Layene people. Pathe said I was always welcome, he even got me to take photos of the area where we’d met so I’d remember the way back to the family home. I noticed how calm Camberene was, I asked Pathe if there was much crime, he replied that this was a religious place and that everyone knew each other so there was no (or little) crime. Pathe and I parted ways: me and my new, old friend! As I walked the shoreline back to Parcelles Assainies I continued to greet people all the way ‘Laye y Laye’ and everyone responded ‘Laye y Laye’ with big smiles.